CASTL's Motivate Lab Awarded Multiple Grants to Study Impact of Learning Mindsets in Higher Ed

​By Kathy Neesen

As students enter college and prepare for the workforce, what motivates them to learn and persist? What pathways lead them to successful, fulfilling careers? These are questions researchers at the Center for Advanced Study of Learning's (CASTL) Motivate Lab are eager to answer.

Led by Chris Hulleman, associate research professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School Education, the Motivate Lab was recently awarded several grants totaling $615,000 to explore the motivational factors that may influence a student's successful pathway from college to employment.

The lab will begin a two-year study funded by the Mindset Scholars Network by collaborating with the Tennessee Board of Regents to investigate a recent positive shift in college student pass rates. "Tennessee has recently seen great success by implementing a co-requisite course system," Hulleman explained. "The co-requisite course is essentially a companion course to require mathematics, writing and reading courses in higher education. Instead of taking a remedial math class first, for example, students can immediately enroll in the regular math class along with a one-credit co-requisite course, which teaches strategies for studying and adjusting to college."

Traditionally, colleges have required students to take remedial courses first if they do not have the prerequisites for the regular course. Because a remedial course does not offer any credit toward a degree, it often discourages students from persisting in college. In the case of some students, it is the first and last course of their college career.

Following the success of co-requisite courses, the board is now ready to look at another piece of the puzzle, how to improve students' learning mindsets. This is where Hulleman and his team come in.

"The board has asked us to collaborate in looking at what motivates students to learn, persist and succeed throughout their college experience," he said. Hulleman and his team believe learning mindset interventions can provide an additional boost to students, above and beyond co-requisite courses, to help them have successful college careers.

Stephanie Wormington, research assistant professor at the Curry School of Education and part of the Motivate Lab, said that Tennessee's positive experience with co-requisite courses provides an opportunity to study the motivational factors that may have played a role for students.

"When Tennessee shifted to the co-requisite course model, they collected a large amount of data from over 5,000 students participating in these courses," she explained. "They asked how valuable they felt their coursework was and what sense of belonging they felt during their first semester of college." These data will allow the research team to explore whether students' learning mindsets impacted their success in these particular courses.

Not only that, but continued data collection from the same students over the past two years will provide researchers an opportunity to see how the initial experience with co-requisite courses may have impacted students' mindsets through the remainder of their college experience. Wormington is hopeful that the Tennessee data, one of the largest and most diverse data sets thus far to track college students, will offer new insight into what motivates students to persist in college. "Typically when we've studied students' mindsets in the past, we've explored data from four-year universities or a small sampling of community colleges, but this is a much wider dataset that was collected systematically across the state," Wormington said.

The Motivate Lab will then work with other Tennessee agencies to collect additional data as these students enter into the workforce, such as employment status and salary, to determine whether they successfully entered and remain in the workforce. Long term, Wormington added, the Motivate Lab's goal is to create a rich understanding of students' motivational mindsets as they explore career options and enter the workforce.

"What we want to understand is how people are coming into different careers," she explained. "What are the different pathways that people take from education to employment? What is their motivation and mindset along the way? One thing we know from current research on employment is that even though students may successfully make it into the workforce, they may not be coming in with a feeling that they'll succeed. In the long run that often means they don't persist and leave that career path."

To better understand some of these bigger questions and how to answer them, the research team has also received funding from the Joyce Foundation to study data from Germany, a country that has been tracking students all the way from high school into eight years of employment. Wormington said the goal is not to make direct comparisons between the two nations, but to look at the German data set for indicators of what interventions could be worth testing out within the United States.

"We'll look at a German data set called the TOSCA," she said. "It's a rich data sets that not only has information about individual's educational track, employment status, and salary, but has collected data on many other factors, such as an individuals' values, their sense of purpose, and how likely they felt they would succeed at different points and times across the eight years of their education and employment."

To start their Pathways to Employment research agenda, the Motivate Lab will analyze both the TOSCA data set and the data collected by the Tennessee Board of Regents in fall 2017. Based on initial findings, the team will then pilot some initial interventions in spring 2018, with plans to do a larger intervention in later in fall 2018.